Care and Feeding

I’m So Ashamed of How I Feel About My Son

A woman puts her head in her hand.
Photo illustration by Slate. Photo by Getty Images Plus.

Care and Feeding is Slate’s parenting advice column. Have a question for Care and Feeding? Submit it here or post it in the Slate Parenting Facebook group.

Dear Care and Feeding,

My 18-year-old-son Chad’s depression is becoming overwhelming and exhausting for me. My son is amazing, intelligent, and bright. Growing up he always had a lot of energy, was optimistic, enthusiastic…etc. He was diagnosed with ADHD and dyslexia around third grade. He thrived both academically and socially despite that. Right around the time high school started he started getting depressed.

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We started seeing a counselor together. And then he saw him (and still does) independently. The counselor has been a lifesaver to our family. He’s helped me understand what my son is going through and gave me tools and guidance to try to help Chad through his struggles.

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About a year ago things got really bad. He said he wanted to kill himself, and we ended up in the hospital overnight. It led to him seeing a doctor and getting on antidepressants, which helped, but he did not like the way they made him feel so he stopped taking them.

He is now in college (locally) and still very much struggling. My issue is…I’m exhausted. And embarrassed to say, I’m losing patience. I know depression is a lifelong illness. I know it’s not his fault. I know I will always love my son no matter what. But it’s taking a toll on our entire family. We have three other kids. We expect a certain level of chores and cleaning up after yourself from all of them. (They do dishes after dinner, make their own lunches and clean up after that, do their own laundry, etc.) When Chad is clearly going through a rough patch, he tends to walk away from chores. He’ll just absentmindedly leave the room. When brought to his attention, sometimes it’s fine and he’ll apologize and proceed to help. Other times it’ll send him spiraling into self-loathing.

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I’ve spent countless, sleepless nights in his room talking things over with him. I’ve canceled countless things to rush home and be by his side when he’s called me in a panic. I’ve done his laundry for him so he’s got clean clothes and has one less thing to stress/feel bad about. We’ve all started just doing his share of the dishes and other chores for fear saying anything will send him spiraling again. His dad is always saying it’s not fair to the other kids. He’s the oldest and should be the biggest help/example. He thinks I’m babying him. But I truly believe he’s depressed and I’m desperate for him to get the help he needs. It’s beginning to feel endless and I’m beginning to feel hopeless myself. I’m less available to my other kids when he’s home and feel guilty about that as well.

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—Helpless to Help

Dear Helpless to Help,

It sounds like you and your family are doing the best that you can to help Chad. It’s great that you found a counselor who’s been helpful; I hope that you and Chad are still seeing him. You’re right that clinical depression is a lifelong condition that Chad will have to manage. You, your husband, and your other three children will, in turn, have to manage your expectations. Chad may not be capable of contributing to household chores as regularly as the rest of the family. He may not be able to participate in every family activity. And sometimes, you’ll have to accept that and give him the space to contend with his illness, while continuing on with your daily routines and responsibilities. Take whatever measures you can to ensure his safety if he’s ever left home alone, but don’t necessarily cancel or postpone what needs to be done until Chad is able to participate in the way that you imagine he can and should.

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Have you and your husband considered joining a support group for parents of children with depression? Having a wider network of support may help you to feel less frustrated and alone. Talking with other parents may also provide you with a greater sense of perspective, as well as new strategies to help Chad navigate his condition. There’s strength in community and I hope you’re able to shore yours up. Your family needs as much encouragement as Chad does, and I hope you all find a wealth of it.

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From this week’s letter, “Our Otherwise Excellent Nanny Does One Thing That Really Worries Me”: “My daughter is only 2—does she even notice or care?”

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Dear Care and Feeding,

My adult daughter is 21 and breaking my heart. About two years ago, I divorced her father due to very private things within our marriage after he cheated on me. I did not disclose to my children the cause of the divorce, because I felt like that was between my ex-husband and me, and I did not want the kids to hate their father. He’s a great dad, always has been, but we could no longer stay married. We are completely fine with no drama between us, and we co-parent our child that is still at home extremely well. The kids always came first.

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My daughter was away at college and living her own life well before the divorce. Since then, my daughter has clung to her father. I was the one that filed the divorce and my daughter puts all of the blame for my failed marriage on me. She truly resents me and shuts me out. When I call her, she’s rather short to me and honestly downright mean. She posts terrible memes on Facebook about terrible moms and childhood trauma to the point that friends and family call me, concerned about her behavior and wondering what she’s talking about.

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It was never like this before. We were always so close when she was growing up. I never dealt with teenage attitude, and I was the first person that she would always call. I’ve tried to give her space to come to terms with divorce, and I’ve tried talking to her about her feelings. She always says she’s fine and shuts down. I’ve received no empathy from her on how hard this divorce must have been for my ex or myself. It was not an easy decision for us to come to, but it was the right one.

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If I say anything about my life, she responds with garbage like, “You should have thought about that before you decided to break up our family.” I’m not looking for her to pick my side, but I want her to know that she has two loving, kind parents. My ex has never owned his part in the demise of our marriage, but would my children’s lives be better knowing that my ex cheated on me multiple times (starting very early on), and I could no longer be in that marriage?

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Should I disclose this information? How can I repair my relationship with her without dragging my ex and exposing the dirty details of our marriage? It feels like I should have the right to some privacy.

—Heartbroken Mama

Dear Heartbroken Mama,

You are entitled to privacy about the specific details that led to your divorce. If you’d prefer to keep your ex-husband’s infidelities to yourself, you’re well within your rights to do so. You and your ex are adults, who handled your marriage and its dissolution as you thought was best. As far as co-parenting your younger child is going, at least, it sounds like you’ve done a few things well.

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Bear in mind, however, even when children are never told the details of their parents’ marriage, they’re constant, live-in observers of the union. They can sense when things are tense, troubled, and unstable. This is true whether there are loud shouting matches, hushed post-bedtime arguments, or extended periods of silent treatment. Absences and excuses for absence can be as telling as an outright admission of infidelity.

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You say that your husband began his extramarital relationships early on in your marriage. Is it possible that your daughter picked up on the problems (without knowing exactly what they were), long before the two of you decided to divorce, and decided to keep quiet about them over the years, just as you did? If so, she may view the divorce as a disruption of the status quo—why didn’t you keep overlooking its problems, as you had for her entire childhood.

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It’s unfortunate that she’s blaming you, and I’m sorry that her behavior is causing you such pain. You don’t deserve to bear the brunt of her disappointment about the divorce. At minimum, consider setting a boundary with her about what sorts of comments you will and will not entertain. Remind her that she doesn’t know the details and inform her of your reasoning for withholding them.

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Your daughter is an adult now, and while she may be hurting, she should be able to have a mature conversation with you about your new family dynamics. If you attempt this on your own, try asking her what her perception of your relationship was when she was growing up? Is she idealizing it or does she remember it as it was, imperfect and, perhaps more often than not, unhappy? If starting that conversation seems too daunting to undertake alone, ask your daughter if she’s open to seeing a family counselor with you.

• If you missed Sunday’s Care and Feeding column, read it here.

• Discuss this column in the Slate Parenting Facebook group!

Dear Care and Feeding,

I have a 7½-year-old grandson, an all-around great kid. His parents never married and they co-parent 50/50. It is a rocky alliance—the mom blames the dad “for getting her pregnant,” and has a mental illness for which she refuses treatment, choosing to self-medicate with alcohol. The dad, on the other hand, makes a good effort dealing with the situation, and is often frustrated by Mom’s lack of cooperation. The problem: When my grandson is with his dad (my son), he often calls me telling me he is sad and he misses his mother. Talking with me used to work.

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Both his dad and I are at a loss about how to help him. Nights at Dad’s are often rough and both parties lose sleep. My grandson is afraid to sleep alone in his bed claiming there are monsters. He’s afraid of the dark. When he was younger, 4 or 5 years old, this was not a problem. He has a fun bed that he used to enjoy (think tent). Dad goes through their bedtime routine—bath, story, prayer, hug. When at his mom’s house, he sleeps with her. His mom is aware he has trouble sleeping at Dad’s but makes no effort to change things on her end and feels it is normal for a boy to sleep with his mom as long as he wants. She also insists he use baby talk, such as wa-wa for water. She tells him riding the school bus is dangerous and insists on picking him up at school rather than the bus stop. In essence, she is keeping him dependent. Dad treats him with age-appropriate boundaries, chores, etc. It appears as though she may be keeping him dependent on her for her own emotional needs. The dad and I are at a loss. Dad has exhausted all methods—lights on/lights off, “monster ” (scented water), music, extra stories, allowing him to sleep in the living room, happy thoughts, drawing things he loves, etc. My grandson is so sad. It breaks my heart to hear him so unhappy and afraid. Please guide us toward the best ways to help him.

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—Lost on the Plain

Dear Lost on the Plain,

Here’s what’s going well: Your grandson has equal time with two parents who each keep him safe when he’s in their care. Though it does seem that there are some major differences in parenting styles and circumstances within the separate households, it doesn’t sound like your grandson’s mother is a danger to him.

Consistency across households is a co-parenting ideal, but it isn’t always the reality. People who parent under different roofs tend to approach the task very differently. That may just have to be something you and your son accept.

It’s also something your son will have to explain to your grandson: Rules and routines are different at his house than they are at his mom’s. Reassure him that you’ll all do what you can to ease the transition between homes, but he can’t expect the same things that happen at his mom’s to happen at his dad’s. Seven is a decent age to start introducing that concept, and though it may take some time for it to stick, he’ll need to embrace it for as long as the shared custody agreement remains as it is.

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It does sounds like your grandson may need more help adjusting to those differences than you and your son can offer on your own. Consider finding a family counselor for him to talk to.

For more of Slate’s parenting coverage, listen to Mom and Dad Are Fighting.

Dear Care and Feeding,

I desperately need some advice. My husband’s sister, “Kira,” has had a troubled past. She struggled with addiction and ultimately lost custody of her first child. However, she got clean, got a job, and had three more children with a new partner. For years I completely believed she was an excellent, responsible mother. Her current partner, “Cody,” is the father of her youngest three, and is addicted to painkillers. They have had a volatile relationship, Kira disparages his parenting openly, and many times Kira claimed she was leaving him.

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Recently, Kira began disclosing more and more information about this situation. She alluded to a car accident Cody was involved in, and although originally Cody told me it was caused by poor weather, Kira later said it was due to Cody being under the influence. All three children were in the vehicle at the time and thankfully unharmed. I was very disturbed by this, as well as later revelations by Kira, like the fact that Cody passed out from drugs while watching the children. Even though I felt deeply conflicted, I still held back from notifying authorities because I truly believed in Kira and was worried she would lose her three children.

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Recently, a family member claimed that Kira is now also abusing drugs again. I am very torn. I do believe it, as she has stopped calling us, borrowed money and not repaid it, and the family member who told us this is one I trust. On one hand I believe what I have to do is report the situation. On the other hand, I worry it would just further destroy the children’s lives. My husband does not want to talk about it and says I cannot report something I have no proof of. I am sick with guilt that keeps me up at night, but I am also terrified that if I make a report it will do more harm than good. Please help me.

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—Sick to My Stomach

Dear Sick to My Stomach,

It’s very difficult to determine when to intervene in situations where addiction is a factor. Kira has a history of substance abuse, and both she and her partner have recently shown multiple signs of ongoing struggles with addiction. Kira’s claims about Cody endangering the children while under the influence are serious. You should take them seriously. The onus isn’t on you to prove the veracity of Kira’s claims. It would be the job of a child welfare professional to do so, most likely by conducting a home visit and interviewing Kira, Cody, and the children.

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You can’t see the future. You don’t know whether or not your intervention will “further destroy the children’s lives.” All you know is what you’ve heard directly from Kira and what you’ve observed of her and Cody’s behavior. Do you believe there’s enough of an ongoing threat to the children’s well-being for you to request a welfare check? If so, you should.

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—Stacia

More Advice From Slate

My husband and I are not particularly well-off, but we are incredibly proud of our daughter, who has worked her butt off and gotten into our (excellent) state school as well as a handful of prestigious private colleges. She wants to go to one of the latter, and apart from a small amount of need-based financial aid, she’s looking at taking on a lot of student loan debt. The rest of the family thinks we should help pay for part of it by cashing out our 401(k). Truly, I do not love the idea of her leaving college with that kind of debt, but I’m extremely hesitant to put our savings on the line at this point in our lives.

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